NEW YORK – As the pandemic has affected so many aspects of modern life, public libraries were already on the way to reimagining and reinventing the way they serve the needs of the community and the people who rely on them. According to the New York Times, “For more than a decade, these seemingly traditional institutions had been investing in a range of technologies and media.”
“Libraries now balance two stacks: the physical with the so-called digital full stack. With a wealth of electronic books, streaming platforms and of course Zoom, many were ready, with some adjustments, to provide services for their communities,” the Times reported on September 24.
“No one could have predicted that 2020 would create the moment when ‘our libraries, the most trusted civic institutions in the country, would become totally virtual,’” said Anthony Marx, the president and chief executive of the New York Public Library (NYPL), the nation’s largest library system after the Library of Congress, the Times reported.
The NYPL was highlighted in the article for its recently renovated and renamed Midtown branch, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL), “the largest in the system,” the Times reported.
“The location will now include classroom space and an entire floor dedicated to adult learning, such as teaching English and technology,” Marx told the Times.
Virtual offerings are unlikely to completely eclipse physical library locations as “librarians across the country foresee institutions that will blend the physical with the digital, increasing their emphasis on their critical community role by offering free Wi-Fi and social services as well as a place where physical books and DVDs coexist with e-books and online platforms,” the Times reported.
The SNFL “also has programming areas, a rooftop terrace designed for events, quiet spaces for patrons and sound studios for recording podcasts,” the Times reported.
Other cities have also been inspired to adopt such plans for their libraries. The plans often include spaces for artisans “which have grown like crazy,” Anthony Harris, an architect with the design firm Gensler, told the Times.
“Wish lists now often include 3-D printers and additional mobile hot spot devices that can be checked out to provide Wi-Fi at home for the many Americans who still lack broadband,” the Times reported.
“All of our goals will be just as important after we’re past this period as they were when we were planning. We will need these spaces,” said Michelle Jeske, the executive director of the Denver Public Library and the current president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), the Times reported.
“The pandemic-induced recession could prompt greater need for physical locations,” Jeske told the Times, “as people come in for help with job searches or filing for unemployment benefits.”
Some libraries began offering curbside pickup and/or grab-and-go services during the pandemic to “allow people to retrieve selections without stepping foot inside,” the Times reported, noting that “it is likely to become a mainstay in the future.”
The cost of technology is also of concern to the nation’s public libraries as more digital options are available. “OverDrive, a popular platform, provides e-book downloads to library cardholders,” the Times reported, adding that the NYPL “employs SimplyE, its own proprietary system, which Mr. Marx says embeds strong privacy protections for its users, but the libraries still need to purchase a license for each e-book.”
“Publishers typically charge libraries more than consumers, based on the assumption that the lending of e-books erodes profits, since they can be read by multiple users,” the Times reported, noting that “typically, only one user can download an e-book at a time.”
Macmillan Publishers “last fall prevented libraries from acquiring the electronic versions of its titles until eight weeks after publication, but with the pandemic, the publisher in March did an about-face,” the Times reported, adding that “it declined, however, to respond to questions about its change of heart.”
Amazon Publishing, “an arm of the tech giant, had gone one step further in limiting access,” the Times reported, pointing out that “while its physical books, along with their audio versions, are available for purchase, libraries cannot buy electronic books.”
As libraries protested, last October ALA “filed a report with the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives on the negative impact of the practice.”
Alan Inouye, director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy, said it has “had a few calls with Amazon in 2020, but they didn’t see a way forward and I haven’t spoken to them since the pandemic began,” the Times reported.
In an email, an Amazon spokesperson told the Times, “We believe libraries serve a critical purpose in communities across the country, and we are exploring ways to make Amazon Publishing e-books available to libraries in a way that best reflects the needs of libraries, patrons, and authors.”
Libraries also continue their role as “the melting pot of a community, bringing together diverse ages, races, and interests,” the Times reported.
“Given that the country is tearing itself apart, perhaps libraries can help to repair our civic fabric,” Marx told the Times.